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Sake versus nihonshu 2017/4/25 14:46
Hi all

I'm confused about the exact meaning and usage of "sake" versus "nihonshu" in various situations. I've searched this site for those words, and read the results (eg. "sake is often called nihonshu"), but it's still not clear to me.

In English, there's no doubt about it: "sake" means the Japanese alcoholic drink made from fermented rice, traditionally drunk from small porcelain cups. Let's call that "rice wine", just to be clear.

So on my first trip to Japan, when I wanted "rice wine" (as defined above), I'd say: "Sake o kudasai" (or somesuch). But the Japanese server would always reply: "Biiru? Whisky?". Then I'd be confused - I've asked for rice wine, why is he asking if I want beer or whisky?

Then I learned that in Japanese, "sake" just means alcohol generically, and rice wine is "nihonshu". So I started asking for "nihonshu" instead: "Nihonshu o kudasai". Usually, that worked fine. I'd ask for "nihonshu", and the server would immediately understand, and give me rice wine.

However, occasionally, when I asked for "nihonshu", the server would have absolutely no idea what I meant. But if I changed to asking for "sake", he'd immediately say: "Ah! Sake! Hai!" - then give me rice wine! I also saw a Japanese TV show, where a Japanese actor, talking to other Japanese actors, asked for "sake" - not "nihonshu" - and was immediately given rice wine.

So it seems to me that in Japanese, "sake" sometimes means alcohol generically, but sometimes means rice wine specifically! It seems to depend on the situation.

Can anyone clarify this? For example, why did some servers immediately understand "nihonshu" as meaning rice wine, whereas others had absolutely no idea what I meant, until I asked for "sake" instead?

Thanks in anticipation of answers :-)
by TC (guest)  

Re: "Sake" versus "nihonshu" 2017/4/25 17:01
No, it does not depend on the situation: "sake" always means alcohol generically. Probably in the second case the waiter didn't understand you for some other reason.
by Firas rate this post as useful

Re: "Sake" versus "nihonshu" 2017/4/25 17:46


Interesting article here:

Sake (Japanese: Ž๐?), also spelled saké (IPA /ˈsɑːkeɪ/ sah-kay or /ˈsɑːki/ sah-kee)[1][2] in English, is a Japanese rice wine made by fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the bran. Unlike wine, in which alcohol (ethanol) is produced by fermenting sugar that is naturally present in fruit, typically grapes; sake is produced by a brewing process more like that of beer, where the starch is converted into sugars before being converted to alcohol.

The brewing process for sake differs from the process for beer in that, for beer, the conversion from starch to sugar and from sugar to alcohol occurs in two distinct steps. Like other rice wines, when sake is brewed, these conversions occur simultaneously. Furthermore, the alcohol content differs between sake, wine, and beer. Wine generally contains 9%–16% ABV,[3] while most beer contains 3%–9%, and undiluted sake contains 18%–20% (although this is often lowered to about 15% by diluting with water prior to bottling).

In the Japanese language, the word "sake" (Ž๐, "liquor", also pronounced shu) can refer to any alcoholic drink, while the beverage called "sake" in English is usually termed nihonshu (“๚–{Ž๐, "Japanese liquor"). Under Japanese liquor laws, sake is labelled with the word seishu (ดŽ๐, "clear liquor"), a synonym less commonly used in conversation.
by . (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: "Sake" versus "nihonshu" 2017/4/25 21:23
Hi, I am a Japanese and a "sake" lover.
Your understanding of the meaning and the difference between "sake" and "nihonsyu" is right.
Well...
The word "sake" had long been used in Japan in the meaning of "rice wine" naturally, because there had not been other alcoholic drinks in history, but along with the generalization of the habit, since the time of the introduction of western life style in the Meiji era, especially after the WWII and especially in recent decades, to take to drinking other alcoholic drinks of foreign origin such as beer, (grape)wine, whisky etc., we gradually regard "rice wine" simply as one of the alcoholic drinks, though keeping in mind, unconcsiously maybe, "sake" is is THE Japanese traditional and sacred alcoholic drink. So, different reactions you experienced reflect this unconscious mind-set of Japanese people.
Personally, I drink sake (rice wine),(grape)wine, beer, shochu, sometimes Chinese rice wine... When I say to my dear wife: "Today, I'll drink sake", it means for me automatically "rice wine" and my wife (we are an aged couple) asks me to confirm what "sake", id. "rice wine" or "grape wine" or "beer". After my answer, she will prepare fortunately for me, depending what I choose, food which suits the drink (what a lucky man I am!).


So on my first trip to Japan, when I wanted "rice wine" (as defined above), I'd say: "Sake o kudasai" (or somesuch). But the Japanese server would always reply: "Biiru? Whisky?". Then I'd be confused - I've asked for rice wine, why is he asking if I want beer or whisky?
You don't look like a Japanese physically at a first glance, do you?
I don't know this happens even now, but before a while, the attitude of the Japanese server you mentioned might be natural and frequent. Because Japanese people didn't know that foreign people were interested in sake (rice sake) and moreover in Japanese cooking. In reality, this was true, I think. This fashion, or interest of foreign people for sake is very recent. It's one of the effects of Japanese cuisine popularity in foreign countries, such as sushi, sashimi, and moreover Japanese style of cooking in general. So, the server never thought you would take other drinks than beer or whisky which were nothing but alcoholic drinks of foreign origine.
In this context I have explained, the word "nihonshu" has a reason to be used, for "nihonshu" means literally "Nihon" (Japan) and "shu" (on-yomi of the kanji Ž๐Aalcoholic drink in general), id. Japanese alcoholic drink. Certainly, this way of calling our own traditional sake "Japanese alcoholic drink" in comparison with other foreign drinks is to be understood, but not pleasant pychologically for us, at least for old generations, or for certain masters of old fashioned "Izakaya". In brief, the word "nihonshu" is forced to be used, at least for me, to make clear what you want is not alcoholic drinks in general (or such as beer, grape wine, whisky etc.), but our "Japanese fermented rice alcoholic drink".

However, occasionally, when I asked for "nihonshu", the server would have absolutely no idea what I meant. But if I changed to asking for "sake", he'd immediately say: "Ah! Sake! Hai!" - then give me rice wine! I also saw a Japanese TV show, where a Japanese actor, talking to other Japanese actors, asked for "sake" - not "nihonshu" - and was immediately given rice wine.
It's a little hard to imagine the situations, but these two situations seem to have a different connotation.
The former is unlikely, but I imagine he might be one of these Japanese who had the mind-set I have explained. I don't know. Or he might simply be embarassed to hear what was unexpected.
The latter depends on situations or locations where this conversation were exchaged. If the location was where Japanese food was served, "sake" might mean naturally and automatically "nihonsyu", because all the people of the show had the common understanding what was to be served there.

Anyway, toast to sake lovers!
by ... (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: "Sake" versus "nihonshu" 2017/4/25 21:47
"sake is often called nihonshu"

It's rather the other way around. Nihonshu is often so-called sake. On the other hand, sake can mean any alcoholic drink.

I think it comes from the fact that long ago the only sake (alcoholic drink) for most Japanese people was nihonshu. I'm talking about the times when Westerners were yet to spread wine, or even before islanders were yet to spread shochu.

In fact, the literal meaning of "nihonshu" is "Japanese alcoholic drink", and "shu" is another way of pronouncing the kanji "sake" Ž๐ Just a few generations ago, wine was commonly called "budou-shu (grape alcoholic drink), and "beer" was written as ”žŽ๐ (wheat alcoholic drink).

However, occasionally, when I asked for "nihonshu", the server would have absolutely no idea what I meant. But if I changed to asking for "sake", he'd immediately say: "Ah! Sake! Hai!"

I agree with Firas. That is weird. Maybe it just didn't occur to them for some reason that you'd order nihonshu.

I also saw a Japanese TV show, where a Japanese actor, talking to other Japanese actors, asked for "sake" - not "nihonshu" - and was immediately given rice wine.

Actually, weird things happen in TV land too. The thing is that if you ask for sake or nihonshu, you don't immediately get it. You will be asked what brand you want, or at least asked if you want it hot or cold (or even warm or icy).

But if you go to one of those "wine bars" or even a British style pub in Tokyo and order "sake" or "nihonshu", the server might be puzzled, because (s)he won't expect it. People usually would order beer or wine or whiskey or cocktails at those places. Same thing can happen if it's still daytime or if you're eating a hamburger. Locals might drink beer with a burger, but hardly sake.

On the other hand, if you go to a oden-bar in the evening, you're pretty much expected to order beer or sake, so it would be much easier for the server to distinguish one from the other.
by Uco rate this post as useful

Re: "Sake" versus "nihonshu" 2017/4/25 21:49
Sorry that I wrote a lot of the same things that the other poster posted just as I was writing.
by Uco rate this post as useful

Re: "Sake" versus "nihonshu" 2017/4/25 23:58
As Uco says, it's pretty strange to just ask for "nihonshu" so that might be one source of confusion.

It's like going into a cafe and saying "I'd like a sandwich, please." If the person doing the ordering seemed to be able to speak English, the waiter would ask what kind of sandwich. But if it seemed like that was the only English phrase they knew, the waiter might decide it was easiest to just bring them a random sandwich rather than trying to explain the different choices.

Another possibility is that some waiters understood your pronunciation and some didn't. Nowadays many restaurants hire waiters whose native language isn't Japanese.
by Umami Dearest rate this post as useful

Re: Sake versus nihonshu 2017/4/26 09:54
Nowadays many restaurants hire waiters whose native language isn't Japanese.

This might be one of very possible explanations.
In either case, unless the original poster should explain more clearly the locations or the kind of restaurants or izakayas, we will not be able to give clearer explanations, because, I think, alcoholic drinks (sake(rice), beer, wine(grape), shochu etc., with the exception of whisky which seems not to be taken at table) and food are closely related. Ah, among ourselves, I never have a sympathy with people who drink always beer eating sashimi or shushi, id. raw fish in general, but it is also true that taste differs.
by ... (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: Sake versus nihonshu 2017/4/26 10:12
Another word to use for the "rice wine" is osake (O'sake, ‚จŽ๐). While sake can mean any alcoholic beverage, osake almost always refers to the "rice wine".

by Nonn Bay (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: Sake versus nihonshu 2017/4/26 14:07
osake almost always refers to the "rice wine"

No, it doesn't. Osake is the same thing as sake, but in a rather politer form.
by Uco rate this post as useful

Re: Sake versus nihonshu 2017/4/26 18:25
osake almost always refers to the "rice wine"

No, it doesn't. Osake is the same thing as sake, but in a rather politer form.


Both Nonn Bay and Uco seem to be right.
Certainly, o-sake is ordinarily a politer form of sake, but, on making an introspection as a native speaker of Japanese language, I will admit that the use of "o-sake", used originally by ladies, might mean today, "sake" in its proper sense and accentuated. In the situation where "sake" means generally, for everyone, alcoholic drinks of all sorts, "sake" preceded by polite "o", "o-sake", happens to come to emphasize "sake" itself, especially when used by males, because we Japanese males never say "o-biiru", "o-shôchû" (I know ladies tend to use these two words), and all Japanese never say "o-uisukii", "o-budôshu", "o-wain" etc. "O-sake" is the only exception used both by males and females.
Anyway, situations will be important.
[Though this topic is related both to food and to language, please forgive me for entering in language discussion like this...]

by ... (guest) rate this post as useful

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